California's High-Speed Train Wreck

California's High-Speed Train Wreck
November 3, 2011

President Obama's dream of a high-speed rail future for California is dead. The only question now is whether the state government will kill it in time to save taxpayers billions of dollars.

On Nov. 1, the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued a new report conceding what critics have been saying for years -- that the ambitious plan to build a bullet train linking San Francisco and Los Angeles would "take longer and cost more than previously estimated."

In 2008, when California voters approved the project in a ballot measure, the system was projected to cost $33 billion to build. Now, the revised projection is that the system would cost a whopping $98 billion, accounting for inflation over the life of the project. The date of completion was pushed back 13 years, to 2033.

Little Private Funding

Making matters worse, the new business plan predicts only 20 percent of the funding will come from private sources. That means that even optimistically, planners will have to come up with $80 billion during times when federal, state and local governments are already strapped for cash.

California enjoyed a one-time bonanza when Obama and the Democratic Congress came to Washington in 2009 with a crisis they didn't want to waste, and allocated billions of dollars to high-speed rail projects. But since Republicans have taken over the House of Representatives, they've turned off the spigots.

Though logic would suggest it would make sense to kill the project altogether, if the state were to do that, it would have to forgo $3.5 billion in stimulus money that's already been directed to it.

‘Corruption at Whole New Level’

"The project is dead, period, because they have no money," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said. "But the problem is everyone's hand is now in the cookie jar . . . and they're buying off every lobbyist and consultant that they can in California, so the corruption has reached a whole new level."

He added, "I don't think you could dream up a bigger boondoggle than this, even if you tried."

The initial 130-mile stretch of the system is supposed to be built in the less-inhabited Central Valley at a cost of $8.8 billion, partially funded with stimulus money.

But that would only pay for the tracks themselves, which won't even be running high-speed trains until more of the system is built. According to the San Jose Mercury News, taxpayers would be paying to "provide a 45-minute shortcut for the 3,000 riders on Amtrak's San Joaquin line."

Opponents of the project have criticized the rail authority for seemingly pulling numbers out of a hat. State Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) noted that when the project was put before voters on the 2008 ballot, average ticket prices between San Francisco and Los Angeles were said to be $55.

Then the estimate shot up to $105. In a hearing this July, the head of the rail authority told LaMalfa that the actual cost would be $120. Yet in its November report, the price went back down to $81.

Possible Ballot Issue

When the state Senate goes back in session in January, LaMalfa will propose putting the high-speed rail proposal back on the ballot. The measure passed by a relatively narrow 53 percent to 47 percent margin in 2008, but a September survey by Republican pollster Probolsky Research found that 62 percent of Californians want to stop the project.

At a time when Californians are being asked to endure cuts to health care and schools because of the budget crunch, there's less appetite for an expensive high-speed rail venture. "People are insulted by this," LaMalfa said.

The only reasonable response at this point would be to send back the federal money and cancel it, as several other states have already done with high-speed rail projects. Then again, we're talking about California.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner, where this article first appeared. Used with permission.